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Isis claims responsibility for Berlin Christmas market attack

Earlier, the Pakistani asylum seeker arrested in connection with the incident was released due to lack of evidence.

Updated 8.20pm

Germany Christmas Market Ambulances arrive after a truck ran into a crowded Christmas market and killed several people in Berlin yesterday evening Source: Michael Sohn

THE SO-CALLED Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for a fatal attack on a Christmas market in Berlin.

Yesterday a lorry ploughed into the market, killing 12 people.

Through its Amaq news agency, the terrorist group called the attacker a “soldier of the Islamic State”.

Earlier, the Pakistani asylum seeker arrested after the attack was released due to lack of evidence.

“The accused, detained over the attack on the Berlin Christmas market on 19 December, 2016, was let go on this evening on the orders of the federal prosecutor,” authorities said in a statement.

The forensic tests carried out so far did not provide evidence of the accused’s presence during the crimes in the cab of the lorry.

As the shellshocked German capital reeled from the country’s deadliest attack of recent years earlier today, doubts emerged over whether the man detained overnight actually committed the atrocity.

Berlin’s police chief, Klaus Kandt, had said “we may have a dangerous criminal in the area”, and announced that security would be boosted while urging “heightened vigilance”.

German newspaper Die Welt first reported from police sources that the culprit may still at large and is armed and dangerous.

“We have the wrong man,” Berlin police are quoted as saying by the newspaper.

Twelve people were killed and almost 50 wounded when the truck tore through the crowd yesterday evening, smashing wooden stalls and crushing victims, in scenes reminiscent of July’s deadly attack in the French Riviera city of Nice.

Speaking earlier today, Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told journalists the arrested man had “denied the act”.

De Maiziere confirmed that the detained man arrived in Germany on 31 December 2015, seeking asylum.

Despite the blow to the investigation, De Maiziere said: “We have no doubt that this terrible event was an attack.”

Angela Merkel 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said ”according to what we know, we have to assume this was a terrorist attack.”

Merkel, visibly moved and dressed in black, told reporters:

I know it will be especially hard for us to take if it is confirmed that the person who committed this attack sought protection and asylum in Germany.

Before that revelation that the man arrested did not carry out the attack, Merkel had said that if the attack was carried out by an asylum seeker it would be “particularly sickening in relation to the many, many Germans who are involved every day in helping refugees”.

Germany Christmas Market Source: Michael Sohn

She added it would also be repugnant “toward the many people who need our protection every day and who are working on integration in our country”.

Merkel said she personally was “horrified, shocked and deeply saddened” by the attack and would visit the site later today with the interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, and Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller.

She pledged that German authorities would “get to the bottom” of the assault and that it would be “punished with the full force of our law”.

The arrival of 890,000 asylum seekers last year has polarised Germany, with critics calling the influx a serious security threat. Another 300,000 people have arrived this year.

Germany Christmas Market Source: Matthias Schrader

Investigation 

An MP for Germany’s CDU Party and a member of the German Parliament Foreign Affairs committee Roderich Kiesewetter said nobody has taken responsibility for the attack yet, but as far as German intelligence is aware, there is an Islamist background to it.

In a Twitter message the police service said it was carefully investigating the “probable terrorist attack” in which a truck was driven “intentionally” into a crowd killing 12 people and wounding dozens more yesterday evening.

“Our investigators assume that the truck was intentionally steered into the crowd at the Christmas market,” the police said in a Twitter message about the suspected attack late last night.

The Polish-registered vehicle, which was loaded with steel beams, had cut a bloody swathe of 60-80 metres into the market in the once-divided city’s inner west.

At least six of those killed were German citizens, authorities said, while countries from Israel to Spain said their nationals were among those injured in the busy tourist spot.

A Polish man, killed with an gunshot, was found on the truck’s passenger seat, said de Maiziere. He was believed to be the vehicle’s registered driver.

A German newspaper is reporting that the now released suspect was arrested with the help of a witness who followed the man after he fled the scene on foot.

The Die Welt daily said that a bystander said they saw the man jump out of the cab of the lorry after it had ploughed through the crowd.

The anonymous witness then trailed the suspect for about two kilometres, while staying on the phone with police to keep them informed of his location, according to the report.

‘Blood and bodies everywhere’

Ambulances and heavily armed police rushed to the area after the vehicle mounted the pavement of the market in a square popular with tourists, in horrific scenes reminiscent of July’s deadly truck attack in the French Riviera city of Nice.

Germany Christmas Market Source: Markus Schreiber

Australian Trisha O’Neill told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation she was only metres from where the truck smashed into the crowded market:

I just saw this huge black truck speeding through the markets crushing so many people and then all the lights went out and everything was destroyed.
I could hear screaming and then we all froze. Then suddenly people started to move and lift all the wreckage off people, trying to help whoever was there.

O’Neill said there was “blood and bodies everywhere”.

Irish reaction

Taoiseach Enda Kenny last night condemned the attack as a “barbaric attack” and extended his condolences to the families of those killed.

“Our thoughts are with those injured and their families. Any Irish citizens with concerns should phone 00353 1 4082000,” he said.

With separate terror incidents occurring yesterday in Ankara, Turkey, and Zurich, Switzerland, Kenny added his condemnation for those attacks also.

“I condemn the callous murder of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey and offer condolences to Ambassador Karlov’s family,” Kenny said.

I condemn the cowardly attack on worshippers at prayer in Zurich this evening. These acts of violence have no place in society and constitute an attack on our fundamental values.

A statement from President Michael D Higgins also offered condolences to the victims of all three attacks:

As President of Ireland I wish to convey my condolences to the families of the victims of these acts and the solidarity of the people of Ireland with all those affected by the violence. I wish all the survivors and their communities strength and confidence in these difficult times.

Separately, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan described himself as “horrified by the loss of life” seen in Berlin.

“Ireland stands in solidarity with Germany,” Flanagan said.

Speaking about the Berlin attack, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said that it was an attack “on freedom itself”.

“This appears to have been an attack not just on people innocently going about their business preparing for Christmas, but on freedom itself,” she said.

Our values of democracy and liberty are the target of those who wish to see a world of dark tyranny imposed on us all.

‘Safer than Paris’

Traditional Christmas markets are popular in cities and towns throughout Germany and have frequently been mentioned by security services as potentially vulnerable to attacks.

“It’s awful. We were in Berlin for Christmas,” American tourist Kathy Forbes said. “We also thought it would be safer than Paris.”

The crash happened in the shadow of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church whose damage in a World War II bombing raid has been preserved as a reminder of the horrors of war for future generations.

The square is at the end of the Kurfuerstendamm boulevard, which was packed with holiday shoppers.

Police said the truck made it as far as 80 metres into the Christmas market before it came to a halt.

Germany Christmas Market Source: Markus Schreiber

High alert

Europe has been on high alert for most of 2016, with terror attacks striking Paris and Brussels, while Germany has been hit by several assaults claimed by the Islamic State group and carried out by asylum seekers.

An axe rampage on a train in the southern state of Bavaria in July wounded five people, and a suicide bombing left 15 people injured in the same state six days later.

In another case, a 16-year-old German-Moroccan girl in February stabbed a police officer in the neck with a kitchen knife, wounding him badly, allegedly on IS orders.

The attack in Berlin comes five months after Tunisian extremist Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed a truck into a crowd on the Nice seafront, killing 86 people.

In response to the suspected attack in Berlin, France beefed up security at its own Christmas markets.

“The French share in the mourning of the Germans in the face of this tragedy that has hit all of Europe,” President Francois Hollande said.

The Nice bloodshed – as people were watching a fireworks display on the Bastille Day holiday on 14 July – further traumatised a France already reeling from a series of jihadist attacks.

The United States labelled yesterday’s incident an apparent “terrorist attack” and pledged its support.

President-elect Donald Trump blamed “Islamist terrorists” for a “slaughter” of Christians in the German capital.

Additional reporting by Cianan Brennan, Cliódhna Russell, Rónán Duffy and Órla Ryan 

© – AFP, 2016

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